Point of View and Symbolism in Sonny’s Blues Essay Example
Point of View and Symbolism in Sonny’s Blues Essay Example

Point of View and Symbolism in Sonny’s Blues Essay Example

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The story “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin makes excellent use of multiple literary elements. Namely, I think the writer utilizes symbolism and the nuances of point of view to give the story a deeper connotation that could not be said plainly. The meat of the story is about an unnamed older brother’s relationship and differences with his younger brother, Sonny. Sonny’s aspiration to become a jazz pianist leads him in an opposite direction than his brother, and into a world where the common suffering is dealt with by heroin and music.

The fundamental differences between the brothers in their lack of understanding for each other and their gradual acceptance of one another is highlighted and explained by what the symbolism adds to the story and the change in the narrator’s point


of view at the end of the story. The symbolism in this story divulges information about the characters that could never have just been plainly said. Perhaps the greatest factor in the contrast between the two is the career paths they have chosen. Sonny’s dream is to become an accomplished jazz/bebop pianist.

During the mid 1900’s when this story is set, that profession is the embodiment of black culture. The whole genre of music was born out of the suffering and woes of the then contemporary black society. The brother, on the other hand, became an algebra teacher, a job that the white culture would respect. His position implies that he desired to hide from prejudice; trying to assimilate as well as he could into white culture, whereas Sonny embraced his ethnicity. A musician is creative, fluid, and free spirited,

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while an algebra teacher is more logical and structured by nature, establishing a basic gap between the two right off the bat.

The brother’s left brain-ness is a main reason why he has trouble understanding the importance of jazz to the creative right brained Sonny. To Sonny, jazz represents his need for autonomy and an escape from the anguish of black poverty; and music is the only way he can truly express these feelings. Sonny couldn’t cope without it; “Neither did they dare to make a great scene about that piano because even they dimly sensed, as I sensed, from so many thousands of miles away, that Sonny was at the piano playing for his life” (Baldwin 350).

With so many temptations and opportunities for wrong in Harlem, playing the piano is what anchored Sonny to a moral life. After the fight and flight from Isabel’s house, Sonny would never be the same again. However, later in the story, the narrator begins to understand the underlying meaning of making music when he observes the gospel quartet; “…the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last” (Baldwin 353).

This is the first instance when the brother realizes that music is therapy to life; that, while singing, they are momentarily absolved of all suffering. He is reminded that just as they are Brothers and Sisters, that he and Sonny are Brothers; that in this Earth, everybody suffers together. This seed of understanding later sprouts while

watching Sonny is play, “Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last that he could help us to be free if we would listen, than that he would never be free until we did” (Balwdin 359). At that moment, Sonny’s brother finally grasped the concept that Sonny had known practically all his life.

For the first time, he truly became aware of what suffering is. Painful memories flooded back to him, memories of his mother, his deceased daughter, and the pain his father must have felt standing over his dead brother, all which he is now fully able to comprehend. This is symbolized by “the very cup of trembling,” a scotch and milk he sent to Sonny that is an allusion to the Bible; when God acknowledges that the Israelites have suffered for Him and he promises an end to their suffering. Maybe that means that this breakthrough of Sonny’s will bring a sense of fulfillment into his life and release him of his addiction to heroin.

Two other important symbols are the moments of silence throughout the story, and the reoccurring usage of water. Each occurrence of silence in James Baldwin’s story is of great importance. In a tale centered around music, silence stands out more than noise. Once Sonny was confronted by Isabel and her family about his constant piano playing and stopped, “The silence of the next few days must have been louder than the sound of all the music ever played since time began” (Baldwin 351). To Sonny, this silence is deadly. He lives his life for music. The stillness marks the beginning of his downfall.


the narrator’s first flashback to childhood, he recalls a sense of dismal seriousness, “For a moment nobody’s talking, but every face looks darkening, like the sky outside” (Baldwin 344). Even a child can feel that there is some sort of inescapable impending pain that everyone knows about, yet no one wants to discuss. However, that is the exact subject that Sonny addresses in his music. Water comes into play multiple times at stressful and liberating moments. The narrator described how he was feeling after he first heard about Sonny’s incident as a block of ice that settled in his stomach, “It was a special kind of ice.

It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less. Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream” (Baldwin 337). Water generally represents life. The reason the older brother was filled with ice is because he feels responsible for Sonny, and Sonny’s failure is the same as the brother failing. The solid ice is there to numb the pain of failure and anxiety. The same icy stasis returned at dinner with Sonny and Isabel, he was still vexed on the uncertainty of the unknown aspects of Sonny’s life.

In contrast, when Sonny plays his blues, by the end of his concert, he is drenched in sweat. Sonny melted all the ice out of himself by successfully pouring his emotions into the piano. That just goes to show how much power the blues truly gave Sonny. Analyzing the point

of view allows the reader to better understand the connection between Sonny and the brother. “Sonny’s Blues” is narrated in a first person perspective because we only get to see the story from the older brother’s standpoint, and he is not able to view any other character’s perspective.

The older brother’s point of view is greatly different from his younger brother because of the type of person they have developed into. At the beginning of the story, it feels as if the narrator is removed from African American society, even though he still lives in Harlem. As he is talking to Sonny’s childhood friend, he finds no common ground with the man. Everything the man said infuriates Sonny’s brother even though the man did seem to have a genuine interest in Sonny. At this point, it seems that there isn’t much to the main characters besides their stereotype.

However, once the narrator starts to delve into their past, we learn that there is more to these people than previously thought. The older brother had always felt responsible and cared for his younger sibling, though the older wasn’t always around, and when he was they did not always see eye to eye. The difference in their attitudes on life is the reason that the brothers got in so many fights, why they could never have a civil conversation, and why Sonny’s brother never understood his passion for blues.

However, each interaction between the two led to a small but significant exchange of caring which built up to at least an appreciation. It wasn’t until the final scene in the jazz bar that the

narrator’s point of view truly shifted. Once he reached the understanding that Sonny had been trying to communicate to him, he realized how calloused he had been throughout his life. This new perspective the narrator has achieved will undoubtedly change his relationship with Sonny from then on. Sonny’s Blues is a story about the plight of black men in the mid 1900’s Harlem.

It is about two possible different paths in dealing with the tough situation at hand. One can either embrace his ethnic background, or try to assimilate into the majority’s culture; either way they are still part of the oppressed minority. Each brother chose a different path which was the source of their innate separation, but they were finally brought together by the heart wrenching soulful music that Sonny spent his life developing. It wasn’t until then that the older brother realized that we are all Brothers and Sisters in this world; we all suffer together.

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